#2. That Most of the Humans in the World Aren't People
Let's talk about overpopulation and 1980s cartoons for a moment. Let's say a time traveler comes back from 500 years in the future and brings good news: Human civilization has not only survived, but thrived -- sickness is a thing of the past, mankind is colonizing the stars, poverty is no more. Yay!
Also, he says, the future world population is made up entirely of Arab Muslims.
You'd be OK with that, right? If not, why not? Remember, we just said everyone is happy.
We'll come back to that. Here's something that always bothered me in the movies I watched as a kid. The evil Stormtroopers would always cover their faces:
But the heroic good guys wouldn't:
Even in situations where both sides are doing something that should require a mask (that is, flying at altitude), the good guys all let us see their eyes:
But the bad guys all keep their visors down:
In G.I. Joe, the Cobra soldiers were masked:
The Joes were not, for the most part:
Whoa, I just now realized how shitty the animation was on that show. Anyway, obviously the idea is to make the bad guys less sympathetic and easier to kill -- if the guy Tom Cruise shoots down has flirty blue eyes or a kind smile, we might start wondering if that guy had a flamboyant personality, and a sexy love triangle, and daddy issues, and an entire internal universe of hopes, dreams, and loves that died with him. And who could bear killing a Stormtrooper if he was as cool as Han Solo? No, you cover their faces because they're the bad guys. They don't get faces. Only humans get those. If you think about it, that's a hardcore goddamned lesson to teach a 10-year-old.
Which brings us back to the prospect of an all-Muslim future, as warned about in this hilariously bigoted video:
Hopefully most of you reading this can recognize that as scare-mongering for hateful dipshits. But here's the thing: Many of you do worry about overpopulation in general. But that's just common sense, right? Too many people, not enough food, water, and fuel to take care of them all -- we need to cut back. But do me a favor: Picture, in your mind, what the excess population in the world looks like. Imagine the people who, in a perfectly population-controlled world, wouldn't be there.
Are you picturing yourself, and your friends, and your family? I bet you're not. I bet you're picturing hordes of dirty, starving kids in Africa, even though they use only a tenth of the resources we do. If our time-traveling scientist suggested going back in time and preventing the births of the heaviest resource users (that is, us) by jumping out of a time portal and slapping away our fathers' boners at the last second, we'd tell him to stop that shit. After all, the world is clearly better off with smart, compassionate, loving, charming human beings like us. When we said we wanted fewer people, we weren't picturing faces, we were picturing dirty, hungry mouths. You know ... like they have in those ... brown countries.
See how easy it is to fall into that trap? Even when we think we're being thoughtful and responsible, it's still done with the utterly insane yet unspoken belief that those masses outside of our tribe aren't people. It's not your fault. This superstition is built in -- we evolved to function in tribes, and to believe that only one tribe can "win." And I think we, as a species, have to get past that before this shit turns really ugly.
Department of Energy/Photodisc/Getty
Bizarrely, you can see pop culture clumsily struggling with this. I mentioned Star Wars Stormtroopers above -- in the original trilogy, it's assumed that they're just people, conscripts or whatever. But in the prequels, they're clones, and the rest of the cannon fodder are robots -- apparently mowing down hundreds of human beings wasn't considered kid-friendly anymore. But whether a sentient clone or even a sentient robot also has a right to life is something you could spend the rest of the month thinking about (along with sentient aliens, or Orcs, or vampires). So, instead they cover their faces or otherwise make them look inhuman specifically so you don't think about it. Numbing your conscience, like the dentist rubbing that paste on your jaw so you don't feel the needle go in.
And, if you've made it this far and are proud to see that you subscribe to none of the silly beliefs listed above, you're at risk of maybe the most dangerous belief of all ...
#1. That Being Smart Means Believing in Nothing
Hey, remember the Double Rainbow guy? The guy who made that YouTube video where he got so excited about a pair of rainbows that most of us thought he was having a stroke or something?
Now let's compare that to another clip, that of evangelical Christian children reacting in the same way, this time in response to a hardcore fundamentalist sermon:
I'm going to bet that lots of you find that first clip amusing and that second clip terrifying. Likewise, some of you find this massive crowd of Muslims converging on Mecca at least a little unsettling:
Whereas this crowd of college football fans is harmless:
In other words, we're fine with people reacting in awe of something as long as that thing is inconsequential. We have no problem with people traveling large distances and gathering en masse while all wearing the same outfit as long as the thing they're doing it for is frivolous. A bunch of young males screaming and thrashing around in a mosh pit? We could be friends with those dudes. A bunch of young males screaming and thrashing around as part of a cult ritual? That's goddamned apocalyptic.
It's obvious why -- we've seen enough terrorists, suicide cults, and hateful fundamentalists to know that zealots are bad news. Fervent belief in something -- whether it's a religion or a soccer team -- shuts down the thinking part of your brain and makes you start rioting in the streets. So clearly a smart person does whatever the opposite of that is. Right?
Probably The Lord of the Rings.
Usually this involves taking whatever other people are excited about and putting the word "just" in front of it. Like:
"It's just a couple of rainbows!"
"It's just a game!"
"It's just a religious sermon!"
"It's just an election!"
"It's just a job!"
"It's just the summoning of Nyarlathotep, the Dark God of Crawling Chaos!"
And there's the problem. The logical part of the human brain has turned out to be a horrible motivator. The gut-level awe part of the brain is a fantastic motivator. It's just the way we're built. Those zealots are high on dopamine, which is the brain chemical that motivates us to act. But you knew that -- Braveheart didn't rush into war for some logical political calculation. He did it because they murdered the love of his life. Motivation comes from the gut, not the brain.
"Wait. This increasingly seems like a bad idea."
This is why Alcoholics Anonymous members, even the atheists, submit to a "higher power" as part of the recovery (note: The higher power can be anything -- if not a god, then family, friends, etc.). Basically it comes down to: "Create something in your mind that is an absolute -- a force for good that is bigger, better, and beyond what we are, that you can absolutely defer to." Something you can be in awe of. It's a way of deflating your ego and letting go.
Logically, nothing deserves this. The cowboy hat patriot who worships the flag is failing to rationally deconstruct all of the flaws of his nation's political and economic system. The fundamentalist fails to see any other beliefs as valid or honestly held. But try to take away our targets of awe, and by God, we will create new ones. Stupid ones. We will create tribes and pilgrimages around what brand of electronics we buy. Hell, compare the reaction of the kids in the Jesus Camp video above to these kids getting a visit from Justin Bieber:
You need something to be in awe of. You, the person reading this. If you don't have something, you'll create it. You'll obsess over a girl or a guy, you'll obsess over money, you'll obsess over World of Warcraft. You will be defined by what you choose to worship, but you will worship something, and your whole life will be a steady parade of various people trying to convince you that they or their product are just the thing to fill that void. Buy my book.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author. You probably don't know that his long-awaited new novel is out right now at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, Powell's, your local bookstore, or anywhere else books are sold!
Related Reading: Some crazy beliefs are just straight-up awesome- like the Tiwi belief that men father children in their dreams. And did you know genius Isaac Newton believed in alchemy, long after everyone else realized how dumb it was? Last, restore some of your faith in belief with these ancient ones that turned out to be true.